The Office of the Attorney General of North Dakota filed a report detailing the properties seized through civil asset forfeitures from August 2019 to June 2020. The report was made in compliance with the state House Bill 1480, which amended the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws in 2019. The bill was passed unanimously by the House of Representatives, with officials acknowledging that a change in North Dakota’s state forfeiture laws is in need.
Prior to HB 1480, the Institute for Justice rated North Dakota an F rating in their “Policing for Profit” survey. The poor rating was due to the state’s controversial asset forfeiture laws. The minimum standard for seizing an individual’s property in the state was simply probable cause, with no charges required. Property owners also had the burden to prove their innocence in order to take back their forfeited assets. Law enforcement agencies were not required to file reports of asset seizure at all.
The period of secrecy in the state’s civil asset forfeitures ended last year with the first ever report of the Attorney General. Of the $521,846 cash seizures, $34,632 was given back to the defendants, about $10,000 was awarded to the North Dakota Child Support Enforcement, and the rest of the fund amounting to $477,214 was absorbed by the 21 law enforcement agencies involved in the forfeitures.
Further details of the breakdown showed eleven vehicles seized, eight of which were sold for $41,393 in total; eight firearms, two of which sold for $300; alcohol; small equipment; jewelry; and other small assets. Many of the original owners of these items may have felt that hiring an experienced attorney or attempting to fight the seizure themselves was a futile attempt, thus allowing law enforcement to keep the assets.
The police department is reportedly on board with HB 1480, with Bismarck Police Sgt. Mike Bolme even volunteering that cash forfeitures were higher in the reported year due to seized assets from drug organizations. Police also said that there are still some properties that have not been processed yet.
The issue of transparency is just one of the aspects of North Dakota’s existing state forfeiture laws that HB 1480 aims to change. To improve reporting, the bill obligates law enforcement agencies to give more details on forfeiture proceedings. The Attorney General will also include the law enforcements’ records in the annual report, and a higher standard for property seizure is also included in the bill.
Rather than relying solely on probable cause, law enforcement now needs a conviction for processing forfeitures in court and evidence beyond reasonable doubt of the property’s involvement in criminal activity.
For the Institute for Justice, North Dakota’s HB 1480 is a step to ending civil asset forfeiture and shifting to more legally sound criminal forfeitures, with property seizure acting as a sanction for proven criminal activity. From a poor F rating, the Institute moves its rating a step higher to a D-, acknowledging the efforts of the attorney general in providing transparency in state forfeitures to comply with the new law. The positive reception of the Office of the Attorney General and other law enforcement agencies to HB 1480 is also a credit as the state moves forward with civil asset forfeiture reform.
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